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Acutely observed, evocative collection of short stories from the Man Booker Prize-longlisted author of Unexploded, blending fiction, biography and memoir
Hovering on the border of life and death, these stories form a ground-shifting collection, taking us into history, literature and the hidden lives of iconic figures.
In 1920s Nova Scotia, as winter begins to thaw, a woman emerges from mourning and wears a new fur coat to a dance that will change everything. A teenager searches for his lover on a charged summer evening in 2011, as around him London erupts in anger. A cardiac specialist lingers on the edge of consciousness as he awaits a new heart – and is transported to an attic room half a century ago. In an ancient Yorkshire churchyard, the author visits Sylvia Plath's grave and makes an unexpected connection across time. On a trip to Brighton, reluctant jihadists face the ultimate spiritual test. And at Charleston, Angelica Garnett, child of the Bloomsbury Group, is overcome by the past, all the beloved ghosts that spring to life before her eyes.
Precise, playful and evocative, these exquisitely crafted stories explore memory, the media and mortality, unfolding at the line between reality and fiction. Written with vigorous intelligence and delicate insight, this collection captures the surprising joys, small tragedies and profound truths of existence.
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About the Author
Alison MacLeod is the author of three novels – The Changeling, The Wave Theory of Angels and Unexploded, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 – and two story collections. She is the joint winner of the Eccles British Library Writer's Award 2016 and was a finalist for the 2017 Governor General's Award. She was Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester until 2018, when she became Visiting Professor to write full-time. She lives in Brighton.
Read an Excerpt
All The Beloved Ghosts
By Alison MacLeod
Bloomsbury Publishing PlcCopyright © 2017 Alison MacLeod
All rights reserved.
For Marjorie Genevieve
Wisdom after the event is cheap indeed – but go back.
The smoky light of a March sunrise is seeping through the winter drapes. Outside, the world is glassy; the trees on Pleasant Street, glazed with winter. Every bare branch, every dead leaf is sheathed in ice, like a fossil from another age, an antediluvian dream of blossom and green canopies. Below her bedroom window, the drifts rise up in frozen waves of white – even the sudden gusts and eddies of wind cannot disturb those peaks – while overhead, the warmth of the sun is so reluctant in its offerings, so meagre, you'd not be alone if you failed to notice the coming of the first thaw.
Above her room, a sheet of ice on the eaves gives way, smashing like a mirror on to the porch roof, but everyone in the house sleeps on. Marjorie – or Marjorie Genevieve as her father always called her – sleeps in what the family still call 'Ethel's room', though it has been thirteen years since Ethel was taken from them by TB. Ethel, 1913. And Kathleen, just two years later, only twenty-two. Marjorie still keeps one of Kathleen's Sunday handkerchiefs, spotted with her blood.
As for their mother, Cecelia Maud, it is true what people say. She has never recovered from the deaths of her three grown children: Ethel, Kathleen and, finally, senselessly, Murray, two months after Kathleen. Before Christmas, Marjorie found her mother sitting in the ice house with her coat unbuttoned and sawdust stuck to the bare soles of her feet.
After seven daughters, Providence gave Cecelia Maud and James MacLeod a single son, a boy who would become the youngest lawyer ever admitted to the Bar in the province of Nova Scotia.
Some say the MacLeods hold themselves too high – which is perhaps why the fight broke out, behind Batterson's Dry Goods, which, everyone knew, doubled as a bootlegger's after dark on Saturdays.
No man that night would ever say who was involved or who threw the first punch. Only this was clear. Murray was laid out on a table in the storeroom. Concussed, they said, that was all. Come morning, he'd have a devil of a sore head, and a hard time defending himself to his mother and his wife, lawyer or no. Louis Clarke, the town's Inspector, gave them ten minutes while he turned a blind eye, stepped outside and marvelled, as he was known to do, at the plenitude of stars in the Cape Breton sky. Two men, suddenly stark sober, heaved Murray into their arms. They took the short cut through Plant's Field; saw only the Portuguese fishermen who were camped, as ever, by the brook, their damp clothes hanging pale as spectres, while their owners slept.
That Sunday morning in August, Cecelia Maud woke early. She planned to pick a few Little Gem lettuces from the garden before they wilted in the day's heat. But when she opened the inside door of the back porch, she found her only son slumped against the rocker, blood seeping from his ear.
It was only after the clockwork of the day had begun – the stove swept (no char on a Sunday), the breakfast table laid – that Marjorie found her mother on the floor beside her brother, and for a moment she struggled to know the living from the dead.
But no charges were laid. No notice of the funeral was given in St Joseph's weekly bulletin. It was an unusually quiet gathering, family only, for Murray MacLeod was the youngest lawyer ever to be called to the Bar – dead after a Saturday night at the bootlegger's.
The town whispered. Such a shame. Hadn't the family already been locked away in their years of mourning?
Those girls would hardly know themselves when the black sheets came off the mirrors.
But the MacLeods, Catholic, suffered their most recent loss privately. With three daughters of the house yet to be married, the family remained aware: they were fortunate to reside on Pleasant Street, in the enviable, Protestant district of Ward One.
Again. Wisdom after the event is cheap indeed – but these words and the article itself, in the North Sydney Herald, are still unimaginable. As she wakes this Saturday morning in a frozen March, Marjorie Genevieve is enjoying the knowledge that her coat was anything but cheap.
She works Mondays and Wednesdays at the head office of Thompson's Foundry. Before her father died, he made it clear he would consent to a part-time position only. She did not need to work, he explained with a benign smile, and although James MacLeod is now eight years gone, no one, not even Marjorie's eldest sister, May, with her fierce intelligence and heavy eyebrows, has the authority to overturn his decision.
Marjorie knew it had to be beaver, not muskrat, not even muskrat dyed to look like mink.
A three-quarter-length, wrap-round coat in unsheared beaver.
She saved for two years.
In the darkness of her room, she neither turns on the lamp nor removes the mourning sheet from her cheval mirror. She slides the coat on over her nightgown and rubs her palm against the nape of the fur. The sensation of it is enough. The shawl collar tickles her bare neck. The silk lining is cool against her chest. When she pulls back the drapes, she can see almost nothing of the day through the bedroom window. The pane is a palimpsest of frost; the world is white. But she is radiantly warm.
It is only right. There has been enough grief. Thirteen years of grief. Ethel. Kathleen. Murray. Then her father. Is it any wonder that her mother is the husk of herself ? But she, Marjorie, is twenty-nine.
Wearing the fur over only her nightgown, Marjorie feels nearly naked.
The furrier at Vooght Brothers had the voice of an orator. 'I do not need to persuade you of the elegance of this coat. But remember, while beaver is sometimes known for being heavy to wear, it offers exceptional protection against the excesses of a Cape Breton winter. Notice how the long guard hairs give this coat its lustrous sheen.'
He took the liberty of easing the coat over her shoulders. The drape felt exquisite; the weight of the fur, a strange new gravity. A lining of gold dress-silk flashed within. She wrapped the coat around herself, and felt the dense animal softness mould itself to her form.
'You won't find a more fashionable cut this side of Montreal.'
It was the coat of a mature, stylish woman, the coat of a woman of nearly thirty.
She deposited her payment in a small metal box and watched it whiz away on an electric wire. Within moments, the box came sailing back down the line, and revealed, as if by magic, her bill of sale.
Her account was settled.
The coat would be delivered.
The dance was Saturday night.
The penalties of past mistakes cannot be remitted, but at least the lessons so solemnly and dearly learned should be taken to heart.
But not yet. Wait —
Because Charlie Thompson is pulling up next to the hitching rail outside Vooght's, where William Dooley, the funeral director, has stopped his team. Steam rises from the horses' flanks as a small group of men – from Dooley's, the Cable Office, the Vendome Hotel and the Royal Albert – gather to offer, with low whistles and eagle eyes, their unreserved admiration for Charlie Thompson's new 1926 Buick Roadster.
Marjorie sees him – Mr Thompson, her employer – and nods briefly before turning right when, in fact, she meant to turn left for home. But it's too late. Her pride in her new purchase has distracted her, and she doesn't want to walk past the group of men again straightaway, so she slips into the Royal Café and orders tea with a slice of Lady Baltimore cake.
Outside the gleaming window, a single, tusky icicle drips, one of a long row that hangs from the café's awning, though Marjorie does not notice this first sign of the coming spring.
Between sips of tea, she watches the gathering across the street. William Dooley, the funeral director, has eased himself into the driver's seat. Mr Thompson is leaning on the door of the Buick, showing him the inner sanctum, but even so, he is taller than the others. She supposes he's handsome for a man of his age: dark-haired, grey only at the temples, an easy smile. Shame about the one short leg. A birth defect, she was told.
According to Eleanor in the office, he always walks fast, trying to disguise it, and his tailor 'gets hell' if the hem of his trousers doesn't hide the top of his block of a shoe. 'Maybe the bad leg's the reason he likes speed,' Eleanor murmured, leaning forward. 'Well, there's that new automobile, isn't there? Plus some fine breed of horse up at the racecourse.' She lowered her chin and whispered into her bosom. 'Apparently, he's a gambler.'
Maybe, thought Marjorie. But married, fifty, sober, Protestant, well off, with three children. Respectable.
She leaves two bites of cake on her plate, as May taught her. Then she pushes in her chair, slips on her wool coat and pays the bill. Across the street, Charlie Thompson has resumed the ordinary shape of the man who lopes unevenly past her desk each morning while the secretaries, Marjorie included, lower their eyes out of courtesy.
As she slips through the door of the Royal Café, there can be no way for Marjorie to know that the man she is about to pass for the second time that day – Charlie Thompson, married, fifty, Protestant, with three children – is her future.
On Route 28, the chains on the car's tires grip the snowy twists and bends. They hum, then clunk, with every rotation, a primitive rhythm that sends Marjorie into a world of her own. It's a sixteen-mile journey from North Sydney to Sydney, and, wrapped in her new coat, she enjoys every moment, staring through her window at the frozen expanse of Sydney Harbour, mesmerised by its white, elemental glow.
So she makes only the poorest of efforts to shout over the engine for chit-chat with Eleanor and Eleanor's brother, Stan, up front. The forty-minute journey passes in what seems like ten, and in no time, the flaming tower of Sydney's steelworks looms into view, spitting like a firework.
The Herald will assure us that, as she arrives at the Imperial Hotel on Sydney's Esplanade, Marjorie is a young lady whose thoughts are centred on an evening's innocent recreation. In the lobby, she passes her fur to the cloakroom attendant, wondering if the girl will be tempted to try it on when no one's looking. Go on, she wants to say. I don't mind! But she doesn't want to presume.
'Don't forget your dance cards!' the girl calls after them, and Marjorie dashes back.
For this is a dance, not a society ball, and Marjorie thrills to the faint promise of the unexpected, the spontaneous. Stan is their chaperone, and if he is necessary, he is also negligible.
On the threshold of the hotel's ballroom, she tries to compose a picture in her mind to savour tomorrow morning. But it's a kaleidoscope. The colour of the dresses. (All the satin!) The candlelight from the tables. The glassy polish of the men's shoes. The gleam of the instruments on stage.
Then Eleanor is nudging her arm and reciting the names of the dances marked on their cards. How they laugh. There's the Turkey Trot, the Wiggle-de-Wiggle, the Shorty George, the Fuzzy Wuzzy ... Sixteen dances in all. They sashay into the ballroom. 'I hope I've got a little Negro in my blood,' shouts Eleanor, and Marjorie forces a smile, not knowing the polite reply. Besides, the twelve-man band has started to bugle and strum, to sway and trombone, and Marjorie knows this one – 'Everything's Gonna Be Alright'.
'There must be more than five hundred people here,' Eleanor marvels.
At a small round table, in a row of tables along a curving sweep of wall, Marjorie swaps her winter boots for her Mary Janes. 'And at least half are from North Sydney!' She didn't expect to feel so glad of the sight of all the familiar faces. The fluttering in her stomach eases.
'I told you we wouldn't be stuck with Stan all night. Besides, there are enough men from the KoC to mean that even the Pope himself would approve of our Turkey Trot. Look! Mr Thompson's here too.'
Marjorie spots him, smoking near the rear door. She nods and shrugs.
But Eleanor is squinting. 'He's here with the racecourse set.'
'Is he?' and Marjorie turns to the band. Five of the twelve men are black. Two, the darkest black. She's heard there are Negro families in Sydney who have come all the way from the Deep South.
She's only ever seen a Negro once before, a stoker from the Foundry who came into the office because his wages were overdue. She liked the sound of his voice, the lazy music of his words.
Eleanor yells over the band. 'He's come on his own.'
'Mr Thompson, silly. Mrs Thompson must be down with something. Not that it matters! He never dances anyway with that leg of his.'
Marjorie can see Stan crossing the floor towards them, refreshments in hand. In a moment, she tells herself, Eleanor will have another ear.
'Though you never know.' Eleanor giggles again and tugs at Marjorie's sleeve. 'The Shorty George might be just the number for him!'
Marjorie knows she should, but she doesn't care enough about Mr Thompson to protest on his behalf. Besides it's a new song now, one she's never heard – 'If You Can't Land 'Er on the Old Verandah' – and beneath her dress, her hips are already swaying.
Dance after dance, time is shimmying and quickstepping away, and Marjorie has no notion of the hour. She's red-faced and giddy from laughing through all the new steps, but the room still heaves with dancers. The men from the Boat Club are peeling off their jackets and climbing on top of each others' backs. Within moments, they're a teetering human pyramid, and, on the other side of the ballroom, Joe 'Clunk' McEwan is step-dancing on a tabletop to 'The Alabama Stomp'.
Behind her table, someone has propped open the rear doors for a blast of winter air, and hip flasks of bootlegged whisky are passing from man to man, across the dance floor. The MC is starting to slur, and the twelve-man band is three men down, but the music roars on. She has to pluck her dress away from her legs to catch any breath of air. The voice takes her completely by surprise. 'Excuse me, Miss. Is there room for one more on your dance card?'
Marjorie turns. One of the Negro men from the band – the double-bass player – is standing before her, his shoulders back, his tie loose at his neck. Where on earth did he spring from?
Beside her, Eleanor's head pivots on her neck; Marjorie sees her friend's hand fly to her chest. Stan takes a step forward.
She stands and blinks. She can see the man is not drunk. His eyes are clear; his gaze is steady if shy. For a moment, she wishes he were. Drunk. She might know what to do. She extends her hand. 'I'm enjoying the music, Mister ...?'
He nods, grinning at the parquet floor. 'I'm Walter. Would you like to dance, Miss?'
'Marjorie.' She clasps her palms. She can't think quickly enough. 'I have to confess, Walter. I'm done in for the night.'
She nods. She wants to say, kindly, earnestly: My goodness, whatever has possessed you? And she wants to say no such thing.
Walter still can't look up but he clicks his tongue. 'Tired? A fine dancer like you? I don't believe it. Why, you just need your second wind.'
A quiet sort of daring flashes from him. It warms her strangely. 'I'm sure it's none of my business, Walter, but are you one of the steelworkers from down south?' Are the nights sultry? she wants to ask. Do the women carry fans?
He nods. 'From Alabama, Miss.'
She wishes he would call her Marjorie. She will feel less rude when she sends him away. 'But Sydney's your home now?'
'Not Sydney proper, Miss.'
'No.' He runs a hand across his chin and meets her eye. 'Me and my family, we live in Cokeville.'
She smiles politely. Then it comes to her: Cokeville. The area by Whitney Pier, where the filthy run-off from the coke ovens pours into the estuary.
The band strikes up a waltz, 'Wistful and Blue'. Walter offers her his hand, and she is surprised by the pale flash of his palms. The room is dark and packed, and who but Eleanor and Stan will really notice at this late hour? In any case, she would like to dance, she decides, and Walter's eyes spark with something she can't quite define.
As she accepts his hand, she feels the calluses on his fingertips. She has never met a double-bass player before. She does not see the heads at neighbouring tables turn in mid-sentence as she places her hand on his shoulder. Up close, Walter smells of lye, like the bar her mother keeps by the set tub.
Excerpted from All The Beloved Ghosts by Alison MacLeod. Copyright © 2017 Alison MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsThe Thaw, 1,
Solo, A Cappella, 23,
The Heart of Denis Noble, 35,
Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld, 61,
There are precious things, 73,
Oscillate Wildly, 85,
Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames, 103,
In Praise of Radical Fish, 125,
Imagining Chekhov, 139,
Woman with Little Pug, 141,
Chekhov's Telescope, 151,
The Death of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov, 161,
How to Make a Citizen's Arrest, 171,
We Are Methodists, 195,
all the beloved ghosts, 217,